Executed for High treason, 20th of September, 1803
THIS enthusiast was the son of Dr Emmet, a man of good family, and possessed of considerable wealth; but who, having imbibed opinions favourable to republicanism, took care to instil them into his children. His eldest son was implicated in the Irish rebellion of 1798, and escaped with his life upon the terms offered to Arthur O Connor, Dr M'Nevin, and others, and accepted by them, and, like them, became an exile in a foreign land.
The hero of the present sketch was intended for the Irish Bar, and received a most liberal education. In Trinity College he became conspicuous, not only for his abilities, but for his display of eloquence in the "Historical Debating Society," a school which matured the talents of Bushe, Burrows, and several other members of the Irish Bar. Young Emmet, however, wanted discretion; and having too often avowed his political principles, a prosecution was threatened, to avoid which he precipitately fled to France, where his republican opinions were confirmed.
In 1803 he returned to Dublin, not being then more than twenty- four years of age, and found himself in possession of three thousand five hundred pounds, left him by his father, then recently deceased. With this money, and the talents and connections which he possessed, he might easily have established his own independence; but the sober business of life had no attractions for him; he aspired to greater fame, and resolved to attempt the separation of his country from England.
Wild and extravagant as the scheme was, he entered seriously upon it, and easily found abettors among those who had escaped the angry vengeance of 1798. Having procured several associates, he took a house in Patrick-street, and converted it into a rebel depot for powder, guns, swords, pikes, &c. In the purchase and preparation of these be expended upwards of one thousand pounds; but before the plan of insurrection was ripe, the powder in the magazine, through accident, ignited, and the whole depot was blown into the air. Such, how ever, was the fidelity of Emmet's partisans, that no discovery took place, further than that caused by the explosion; and the government, who ordered the guns to be brought to the Castle, remained ignorant of the purpose for which those destructive implements were provided.
A mind so sanguine as that of Emmet was not to be damped by an accidental disappointment: he collected his partisans, took another house in a lane in Thomas-street, and again commenced preparations for a popular rebellion. The ramifications of treason were easily extended through Ireland, where the discontent of the Catholics induced them to join in any extravagant scheme which promised them redress of grievances. Emmet had correspondents in every county; and the 23rd of July, was the day appointed for a general rising, the signal of which was to be an attack upon Dublin.
The plan of surprising the metropolis was admirably adapted for its sanguinary purpose; but fortunately several disappointments took place, and Emmet was unable to proceed as he intended. In the, confusion of such a moment the rebels deceived one another, and several hundred men, who came in from the country, returned home, being told, that the rising was postponed, while those who remained were crowded into the depot, and impeded the preparations. It was too late, however, to retract, or alter the intended movement, as Emmet expected the whole country to rise on that night. He therefore made the desperate attempt, and, with eighty followers, sallied out, at nine o clock, into Thomas- street, and made towards the castle, which he intended to surprise.
The experience of a few minutes showed him his madness and folly; for he quickly found himself without authority, in the midst of a ruffianly mob, who would neither obey nor accompany him; but who soon convinced him, that, though cowardly, they were brutal and sanguinary. When he had arrived at the market-house, his followers had diminished to eighteen; and as he was now convinced of his rashness, he prevented the discharge of a rocket which was to be the signal for the outposts to commence hostilities. This act saved the lives of hundreds, for the Wexford men, to the number of three hundred, had assembled on the Coal-quay, and other large bodies had met in the barley-fields behind Mountjoy-Square; all of whom, in consequence, escaped uninjured, and were prevented from inflicting injury on others.
The rebel band in Thomas-street, meanwhile, largely increased in numbers; but, being without a leader, they remained confused and inactive. At this moment, however, an act of atrocity was perpetrated. sufficiently serious to exhibit the nature of the design. The coach of the lamented Lord Kilwarden, chief justice of the Court of King's Bench, containing his lordship, and his nephew and niece, the Rev Mr Wolfe, and Miss Wolfe, drove up, and was instantly surrounded. Much confusion prevailed, and his lordship received a deadly stab from the hand of an assassin which eventually deprived him of life; his nephew was dragged from the vehicle and ill-treated; but Miss Wolfe was borne to an opposite house in the arms of a lusty rebel, apparently more humane than his comrades.
The precise particulars of the murder of Lord Kilwarden are not known, and have always been the subject of controversy. By some it is alleged that it was the unpremeditated act of a ferocious rabble; by others, that he was mistaken for another person; but there is another account, which admits the mistake in the first instance, but subjoins other particulars, which appear sufficiently probable. It is related, that, in the year 1795, when his lordship was attorney-general, a number of young men, between the ages of fifteen and twenty years, were indicted for high treason, and upon the day appointed for their trial they appeared at the bar, wearing shirts with tuckers and open collars, in the manner usual with boys. When the chief justice of the King's Bench appeared in court to proceed with their trial, he remarked, "Well, Mr Attorney, I suppose you are ready to go on with the trial of these tuckered traitors?" The attorney-general was quite prepared to proceed at once; but, disgusted with the remark which had been made, he said, "No, my lord, I am not ready;" and he added in a lower tone to the prisoners counsel, "If I have any power to save the lives of these boys, whose extreme youth I did not before observe, that man shall never have the gratification of passing sentence upon one of these tuckered traitors." He performed his promise, and soon afterwards procured pardons for them all, upon condition of their going abroad. One of them, however, refused to accept the pardon upon the condition imposed; and being obstinate, he was tried, convicted, and executed, After his death, it is said that his relatives, readily listening to every misrepresentation which flattered their resentment, became persuaded that the attorney-general had selected him alone to suffer the utmost severity of the laws. One of these, a person named Shannon, was an insurgent of the 23rd July; and when Lord Kilwarden, hearing the popular cry of vengeance, exclaimed from his carriage, "It is I, Kilwarden, chief justice of the King's Bench," Shannon immediately cried out, "Then you are the man I want," and instantly plunged a pike into his lordship's body.
Whatever may be the truth or falsehood of this story, his lordship's death, there is no doubt, was the effect of the violence of the mob on this occasion; and it appears, that the fatal wound had scarcely been given, when a party of military reaching the spot, the people were put to flight, and his lordship's body rescued from further violence, and conveyed to Werburgh-street.
Major Swan soon after arrived, and in his fury at the attack upon so good a man, exclaimed indignantly, that every rebel taken with arms in his hands ought to be instantly hanged; when his lordship, who still lived, turned round, and impressively exhorted him "to let no man suffer but by the laws of his country." In a few minutes after, this great and good man expired.
For a few hours the rebels continued to skirmish with the military, and several men were killed. By morning, however, all appearance of rebellion had vanished, and large rewards were offered for the apprehension of the leader, Robert Emmet, who had escaped to the county of Wicklow, where he arrived in time to prevent a rising of the assembled rebels.
This unfortunate young man was every way an enthusiast; for his love was as extravagant as his patriotism. It appears that soon after his return from France he visited at the house of Curran, the celebrated Irish barrister, and became attached to that gentleman's youngest daughter. Their affection was mutual, but unknown to Mr Curran. Upon the failure of the insurrection Emmet might easily have effected his departure from the kingdom, had he attended solely to his safety; but, in the same spirit of romantic enthusiasm which distinguished his short career, be could not submit to leave the country to which he could never more return, with out making an effort to have one final interview with the object of his unfortunate attachment, in order to receive her personal forgiveness for what he now considered as the deepest injury. With a view of obtaining this last gratification, he selected a place of concealment midway between Mr Curran's country-house and Dublin; but before the meeting took place he was arrested. On his person were found some papers, which showed that be corresponded with Mr Curran's family, in consequence of which that gentleman's house was searched, and the letters there found were produced in evidence against him.
His trial came on, at the sessions house, Green street, Dublin, September the 19th, 1803, before Lord Norbury; and the evidence being conclusive, his conviction followed. When called upon in the usual way, before passing sentence, be addressed the Court as follows
"I am asked if I have anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon me. Was I to suffer only death, after being adjudged guilty, I should bow in silence; but a man in my situation has not only to combat with the difficulties of fortune, but with the difficulties of prejudice: the sentence of the law which delivers over his body to the executioner, consigns his character to obloquy. The man dies, but his memory lives; and that mine may not forfeit all claim to the respect of my countrymen, I use this occasion to vindicate myself from some of the charges advanced against me.
I am charged with being an emissary of France:-- tis false! I am no emissary -- I did not wish to deliver up my country to a foreign power, and least of all, to France. No! never did I entertain the idea of establishing French power in Ireland -- God forbid! On the contrary, it is evident from the introductory paragraph of the Address of the Provisional Government, that every hazard attending an independent effort was deemed preferable to the more fatal risk of introducing a French army into the country. Small would be our claims to patriotism and to sense, and palpable our affectation of the love of liberty, if we were to encourage the profanation of our shores by a people who are slaves themselves, and the unprincipled and abandoned instruments of imposing slavery on others. If such an inference be drawn from any part of the proclamation of the Provisional Government, it calumniates their views, and is not warranted by the fact -- How could they speak of freedom to their countrymen? How assume such an exalted motive, and meditate the introduction of a power which has been the enemy of freedom in every part of the globe? Reviewing the conduct of France to other countries, could we expect better towards us? No! Let not, then, any man attaint my memory by believing that I could have hoped for freedom through the aid of France, and betrayed the sacred cause of liberty, by committing it to the power of her most determined foe: had I done so, I had not deserved to live; and dying with such a weight upon my character, I had merited the honest execration of that country which gave me birth, and to which I would have given freedom.
"Had I been in Switzerland, I would have fought against the French -- in the dignity of freedom, I would have, expired on the threshold of that country, and they should have entered it only by passing over my lifeless corpse. Is it, then, to be suppose that I would be slow to make the same sacrifice to my native land? Am I, who lived but to he of service to my country, and who would subject myself to the bondage of the grave to give her independence -- am I to he loaded with the foul and grievous calumny of being an emissary of France? My Lords, it may be part of the system of angry justice to bow a man's mind by humiliation to meet the ignominy of the scaffold; hut worse to me than the scaffold's shame or the scaffold's terrors, would be the imputation of having been the agent of French despotism and ambition; and while I have breath I will call upon my countrymen not to believe me guilty of so foul a crime against their liberties and their happiness.
"Though you, my lord, sit there a judge, and I stand here a culprit, yet you are but a man, and I am another; I have a right therefore to vindicate my character and motives from the aspersions of calumny; and as a man to whom fame is dearer than life, I will make the last use of that life in rescuing my name and my memory from the afflicting imputation of, having been an emissary of France, or seeking her interference in the internal regulation of our affairs.
"Did I live to see a French army approach this country, I would meet it on the shore with a torch in one hand and a sword in the other -- I would receive them with all the destruction of war I would animate my countrymen to immolate them in their very boats; and before our native soil should he polluted by a foreign foe, if they succeeded in landing, I would burn every blade of grass before them, raze every house, contend to the last for every inch of ground, and the last spot on which the hope of freedom should desert me, that spot I would make my grave: what I cannot do, I leave a legacy to my country, because I feel conscious that my death were unprofitable, and all hope of liberty extinct, the moment a French army obtained a footing in this land. God forbid that I should see my country under the hands of a foreign power. If the French should come as a foreign enemy, Oh! my countrymen, meet them on the shore with a torch in one hand, a sword in the other: receive them with all the destruction of war; immolate them in their boats before our native soil shall be polluted by a foreign foe. If they proceed in landing, fight them on the strand, burn every blade of grass before them as they advance -- raze every house; and if you are driven to the centre of your country, collect your provisions, your property, your wives, and your daughters; form a circle around them -- fight while but two men are left; and when but one remains, let that man set fire to the pile, and release himself, and the families of his fallen countrymen, from the tyranny of France.
"My lamp of life is nearly expired -- my race is finished: the grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom. All I request, then, at parting from the world, is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man, who knows my motives, dare vindicate them , let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them; let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, amid my tomb remain undescribed, till other times and other men can do justice to my character."
Judgment was then passed on him in the usual form, and he was ordered for execution. On his return, to Newgate he drew up a statement of the insurrection, and the cause of its failure, which he requested might be sent to his brother, Thomas Addis, who was then at Paris.
The unfortunate young man, on the night before his execution, wrote to Mr Curran and his son Robert, excusing himself for his conduct towards Miss Curran, and the firmness and regularity of the original handwriting contain an affecting proof of the little influence which the approaching event exerted over his frame. The same enthusiasm which allured him to his destruction enabled him to support its utmost rigour. He met his fate with unostentatious fortitude; and although few could ever think of justifying his projects or regretting their failure, yet his youth, his talents, and the great respectability of his connections, and the evident delusion of which he was the victim, have excited more general sympathy for his unfortunate end, and more forbearance towards his memory, than is usually extended to the errors or sufferings of political offenders.
Moore, the celebrated Irish bard, has lamented his fate in the following melody:
Oh! breathe not his name -- let it sleep in the shade! Where cold and unhonour'd his relics are laid Sad, silent, and dark, be the tears that we shed, As the night-dew that fans on the grass o'er his head. But the night-dew that falls, though in silence it weeps, Shall brighten with verdure the grave where he sleeps; And the tear that we shed, though in secret it rolls, Shall long keep his memory green in our souls.
Several of Emmet's deluded followers met the fate of their leader, and by their ignominious deaths, taught their countrymen the folly and madness of attempting to separate Ireland from this kingdom by violent means.
The following pathetic history of Miss Curran, after the death of her lover, is extracted from Washington Irving's "Sketch Book," in which it appears under the title of "The Broken Heart." It is rather long, but its beauty will amply repay the trouble of its perusal.
"Everyone must recollect the tragical story of young E--., the Irish patriot; it was too touching to be soon forgotten. During the troubles in Ireland he was tried, condemned, and executed, on a charge of treason. His fate made a deep impression on public sympathy. He was so young -- so intelligent -- so generous -- so brave -- so every thing that we are apt to like in a young man. His conduct under trial, too, was so lofty and intrepid! The noble indignation with which he repelled the charge of treason against his country -- the eloquent vindication of his name -- and his pathetic appeal to posterity, in the hopeless hour of condemnation -- all these entered deeply into every generous bosom, and even his enemies lamented the stem policy that dictated his execution.
"But there was one heart, whose anguish it would be impossible to describe. In happier days and fairer fortunes, he had won the affections of a beautiful and interesting girl, the daughter of a late celebrated Irish banister. She loved him with the disinterested fervour of a woman's first and early love. When every worldly maxim arrayed itself against him; when blasted in fortune, and disgrace and danger darkened around his name, she loved him the more ardently for his very sufferings. If, then, his fate could awaken the sympathy even of his foes, what must have been the agony of her whose soul was occupied by his image! Let those tell who have had the portals of the tomb suddenly closed between them and the being they most loved on earth -- who have sat at its threshold, as one shut out in a cold and lonely world, front whence all that was most lovely and loving had departed.
"But then the horrors of such a grave! so frightful, so dishonoured! There was nothing for memory to dwell on that could soothe the pang of separation -- none of those tender, though melancholy circumstances, that endear the parting scene -- nothing to melt sorrow into those blessed tears, sent, like the dews of heaven, to revive the heart in the parching hour of anguish.
"To render her widowed situation more desolate, she had incurred her father's displeasure by her unfortunate attachment, and was an exile from the paternal roof. But could the sympathy and kind offices of friends have reached a spirit so shocked and driven in by horror, she would have experienced no want of consolation; for the Irish are a people of quick and generous sensibilities. The most delicate and cherishing attentions were paid her by families of wealth and distinction. She was led into society, and they tried by all kinds of occupation and amusement to dissipate he: grief, and wean her from the tragical story of her lover. But it was all in vain. There are some strokes of calamity that scathe and scorch the soul -- that penetrate to the vital seat of happiness -- and blast it, never again to put forth bud or blossom. She never objected to frequent the haunts of pleasure, but she was as much alone there as in the depth of solitude. She walked about in a sad reverie, apparently unconscious of the world around her. She carried with her an inward woe that mocked at all the blandishments of friendship, and heeded not the song of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.
"The person who told me her story had seen her at a masquerade. There can he no exhibition of far-gone wretchedness more striking and painful than to meet it in such a scene. To find it wandering like a spectre, lonely and joyless, where all around is gay -- to see it dressed out in the trappings of mirth, and looking so wan and woe-begone, as if it had tried in vain to cheat the poor heart into a momentary forgetfulness of sorrow. After strolling through the splendid rooms and giddy crowd with an utter air of abstraction, she sat herself down on the steps of an orchestra, and looking about some time with a vacant air, that showed her insensibility of the garish scene, she began, with the capriciousness of a sickly heart, to warble a little plaintive air. She had an exquisite voice; but on this occasion it was so simple, so touching, it breathed forth such a soul of wretchedness, that she drew a crowd mute and silent around her, and melted every one into tears.
"The story of one so true and tender could not but excite great interest in a country remarkable for enthusiasm. It completely won the heart of a brave officer, who paid his addresses to her, and thought that one so true to the dead could not but prove affectionate to the living. She declined his attentions, for her thoughts were irrevocably en grossed by the memory of her former lover. He, however, persisted in his suit. He solicited not her tenderness, but her esteem. He was assisted by her conviction of his worth, and her sense of her own destitute and dependent situation; for she was existing on the kindness of her friends. In a word, he at length succeeded in gaining her hand, though with the solemn assurance that her heart was unalterably another's.
"He took her with him to Sicily, hoping that a change of scene might wear out the remembrance of early woes. She was an amiable and exemplary wife, and made an effort to be a happy one; hut nothing could cure the silent and devouring melancholy that bad entered into her very soul. She wasted away in a slow, but hopeless decline; and at length sank into the grave, the victim of a broken heart."